‘I’m the unlikely combination of CEO and single parent’: Annabelle Daniel on opening shelters and running an NGO - Women's Agenda

‘I’m the unlikely combination of CEO and single parent’: Annabelle Daniel on opening shelters and running an NGO

When Annabelle Daniel left the public service to lead an NGO, she started with little more than a desk in a shared office and a mandate to help the one in two women in need of accommodation who are turned away from shelters.

The self-confessed ‘unlikely’ CEO started with Women’s Community Shelters two years ago to develop innovative solutions for offering crisis accommodation for women in need.

This week, the organisation’s first shelter will open in the northern Sydney suburb of Hornsby, the only such refuge between the NSW Central Coast and Sydney’s North Shore.

The shelter will initially accommodate around 10 women without dependents (a segment Daniel says is severely under-resourced) and provide a holistic range of services including health, legal and housing support. While it has received some federal government support, Daniel notes the model they’ve used demonstrates the capacity for social financing, connecting with local community support and tapping philanthropic sources.

She believes the facility will be full within three months given the desperate need for accommodation. Offering space for ten women is a small start, but one Daniel hopes to expand on with the NGO looking to open another five or six similar centres in NSW this year and potentially expand into other states — at a time when other services are being forced to shut down due to state funding cuts.

“A lot of groups are interested in seeing what we’re doing with this one. We’ve done the groundwork and I believe this can be replicated,” she says.

For Daniel, the opening is the culmination of two years of figuring out how to develop and run an NGO and determine innovative and sustainable solutions for women. She says leaving her leadership position in the Department of Human Services (where she oversaw the Child Support program) was a huge leap into the unknown, a move that initially “terrified” her.

“I’m female, a single parent and a CEO. Now that’s a combination that doesn’t happen all that often but I make it work with flexibility,” she says, noting her two children are eight and five. “That’s the freedom of working for a small NGO. My board is focused on outcomes rather than backsides on seats time.”

Indeed, Daniel says the board has provided her with advice and experience she’s not sure she could have found elsewhere. “Working with them the last two years has been like being in an accelerated MBA course in terms of the skills and knowledge they bring in.”

Her desire to work in the not-for-profit sector emerged when she took a year of unpaid leave from the public sector to run Elsie, the country’s longest running women’s shelter. The experienced changed her life.

“It opened my eyes and made me realise what a bubble if been living in, how privileged I’ve been, and just how much work still needs to be done to support women,” she says. “It was that experience that lit the fire in me.”

Daniel did return to the public service following the 12 month stint, but made the difficult decision to leave permanently when the opportunity to build and run Women’s Community Shelters came up. “I didn’t have a computer and a phone for the first five weeks”, she says on starting the new role. “I had a desk sharing an office with The Big Issue. One of my board members had a connection there and they organised a wonderful sharing arrangement.”

She says she managed the fear of dong something completely different with her career by simply acknowledging she was afraid. “The trick for me is knowing that it’s ok to acknowledge your fear about taking a leap, but not to let the fear of taking a leap stop you. You have to trust yourself, back yourself, you can’t let doubt eat at you.”

Managing a young family at home, she adds she’s extremely organised and realistic about what she can and can’t do. “Don’t set the standard so high you can’t possibly achieve it. The perfect is the enemy of the good, sometimes you have to be happy with good.”

The short facts on Annabelle Daniel’s story

Born. North Shore, Sydney

Grew up. Lane Cove, Sydney

Leadership qualifications. Currently a CEO, but academically, BA (Hons) LLB (Hons)

High school ambition? To be a lawyer because my best friend wanted to be one!

First ever job? I was a weekend receptionist at a car dealership at 17. Various positions in car dealerships kept the money flowing until well after I finished studying!

Who and what do you lead? I lead Women’s Community Shelters, a not-for-profit organisation setting up new women’s shelters in NSW communities.

How do you stay informed on a daily basis? I am a voracious reader and read everything. SMH, Australian, Guardian, The Conversation, New Matilda. I am also a keen Women’s Agenda follower.

And manage your wellbeing? Utterly frivolous pursuits like Facebook discussion groups on clothes and shoes, swimming at the beach, Ipad games, and doing simple things like hanging out with family. I don’t get nearly enough exercise though!

First thing you do in the morning? Check my phone.

An average day in the life… It’s so random some days – but emails, documents, presentations to groups, a visit to a shelter and lots of talking!

Leadership ‘superpower’? Being curious about other people. If you are genuinely interested in other people, what’s going on for them, and what makes them tick, most of the other good leadership skills fall into place. Empathy, flexibility, understanding, boundaries.

Advice to your 18-year-old self. Don’t be afraid to change direction, if you work hard and back yourself, you will be fine. Also, it’s OK to be terrified, just don’t let it stop you doing something that could be amazing.

Annabelle Daniel’s story is the 5th of our 100 Stories Project, in which we’re asking women about a turning point that’s shifted her leadership career. Telling 100 stories from January 1 2015, the project showcases the diverse range of leadership careers available, as well as some of the brilliant achievements and fascinating career paths of women. It also demonstrates how planned and unexpected forks in the road can take you places you never thought possible.

Got an idea? Get in contact. Check out more on our 100 Stories Project here

Other women featured in this series include: 

Kate Morris: Why I gave up law to become an online entrepreneur 

Jacque Comery: Leading a team of 12 on an Antarctic base 


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